WASHINGTON — The U.S. military on Saturday shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon off the Carolina coast on orders from President Joe Biden, after it traversed sensitive military sites across North America, becoming the latest flashpoint in tensions between Washington and Beijing.
Biden said he wanted the balloon downed on Wednesday, but was advised that the best time for the operation would be when it was over water. Military officials determined that bringing it down over land from an altitude of 60,000 feet would pose an undue risk to people on the ground.
The balloon was spotted Saturday morning over the Carolinas as it approached the Atlantic coast. At about 2:40 p.m. EST, an F-22 fighter jet fired a missile at the balloon, puncturing it while it was about 6 nautical miles off the coast near Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, senior defense officials said.
The debris landed in 47 feet of water, shallower than they had expected. Still, it was not immediately clear how long the recovery would take. The Navy is taking the lead, supported by the Coast Guard.
“They successfully took it down and I want to compliment our aviators who did it," Biden said after getting off Air Force One en route to Camp David.
The spectacle had Americans looking to the skies all week, wondering whether the mysterious balloon had floated over toward them.
On Saturday, Ashlyn Preaux, 33, went out to get her mail in Forestbrook, South Carolina, and noticed her neighbors looking up — and there it was, the balloon in the cloudless blue sky. Then she saw fighter jets circling and the balloon get hit.
“I did not anticipate waking up to be in a ‘Top Gun’ movie today,” she said.
U.S. defense and military officials said Saturday that the balloon entered the U.S. air defense zone north of the Aleutian Islands on Jan. 28 and moved largely over land across Alaska and then into Canadian airspace in the Northwest Territories on Monday. It crossed back into U.S. territory over northern Idaho on Tuesday, the day the White House said Biden was first briefed on it.
The balloon was spotted Thursday over Montana, which is home to one of America’s three nuclear missile silo fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base.
The Americans were able to collect intelligence on the balloon as it flew over the U.S., giving them a number of days to analyze it and learn how it moved and what it was capable of surveilling, a senior defense official said. The official was not authorized to discuss the ongoing operation and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
China has continued to claim that the balloon was merely a weather research “airship” that had been blown off course. The Pentagon rejected that out of hand — as well as China’s contention that it was not being used for surveillance and had only limited navigational ability.
The public disclosure of the balloon on Thursday prompted the cancellation of a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Beijing for talks aimed at reducing U.S.-China tensions. The Chinese government on Saturday sought to play down the cancellation.
“In actuality, the U.S. and China have never announced any visit, the U.S. making any such announcement is their own business, and we respect that,” China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement Saturday morning.
The Pentagon also acknowledged reports of a second balloon flying over Latin America. “We now assess it is another Chinese surveillance balloon,” Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, Pentagon press secretary, said in a statement.
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not immediately respond to a question about the second balloon.
Blinken, who had been due to depart Washington for Beijing late Friday, said he had told senior Chinese diplomat Wang Yi in a phone call that sending the balloon over the U.S. was “an irresponsible act and that (China’s) decision to take this action on the eve of my visit is detrimental to the substantive discussions that we were prepared to have.”
Uncensored reactions on the Chinese internet mirrored the official government stance that the U.S. was hyping the situation. Some used it as a chance to poke fun at U.S. defenses, saying it couldn’t even defend against a balloon, and nationalist influencers leapt to use the news to mock the U.S.
China has denied any claims of spying and said it is a civilian-use balloon intended for meteorology research. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs emphasized that the balloon’s journey was out of its control and urged the U.S. not to “smear” it because of the balloon.
In preparation for the operation Saturday, the Federal Aviation Administration temporarily closed airspace over the Carolina coast, including the airports in Myrtle Beach and Charleston, South Carolina, and Wilmington, North Carolina. The FAA rerouted air traffic from the area and warned of delays as a result of the flight restrictions. The FAA and Coast Guard worked to clear the airspace and water below the balloon as it reached the ocean.
Television footage showed a small explosion, followed by the giant deflated balloon descending like a ribbon toward the water.
Bill Swanson said he watched the balloon deflate instantly from his house in Myrtle Beach as fighter jets circled around.
“When it deflated it was pretty close to instantaneous,” he said. “One second it’s there like a tiny moon and the next second it’s gone.” Swanson added that a trail of smoke followed the balloon as it dropped.
Officials were aiming to time the operation so they could recover as much of the debris as possible before it sinks into the ocean. The Pentagon had previously estimated that any debris field would be substantial.